a theatre, film & pop culture review
As is pretty clear from the five nominees above, the Academy loves to award period pieces (and sometimes fantasy flicks, though not this year. Sorry, Hobbit!). Typically, the older, the better, but that’s not necessarily true with this gorgeous group. And, strangely enough, though the Costume Designers Guild separates its own nominees into three categories — thus encompassing more films — only two of the above have garnered CDGA noms: 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle.
Just like production designer Adam Stockhausen, designer Patricia Norris had to rely largely on her imagination to create her Antebellum costumes for 12 Years a Slave, as actual images of slaves are scarce and descriptions not entirely helpful. Assuming the slaves wore hand-me-downs and castoffs from their owners, they were dressed in simple cotton sheaths and empire-waist frocks that were dyed and dirtied to age and ruin them. There are even subtle differences in the clothing of the white folks in the film: Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), the twisted slave owner, had billowy, romantic sleeves to show his slightly elevated class over Bass’s (Brad Pitt) more basic shirtsleeves. Norris has been nominated five times before, most recently in 1989 for Sunset (she also won an Emmy for the TV series Twin Peaks), so there is a feeling that it’s her time to win. While her designs are not nearly as flashy as the other nominees, she did win the CDGA, but that’s only been an accurate predictor of the Oscar winner in 6 of 14 years.
Also in the ranks of the less ostentatious, but not less worthy is Michael O’Connor’s designs for The Invisible Woman, a tale of Charles Dickens’s (Ralph Feinnes) affair with a young woman named Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones). No stranger to the Victorian period (he was nominated for the Cary Fukunaga-directed Jane Eyre), Connor based Nelly’s girlish, modest look (lace, pastels) on Dickens’s descriptions of Lucie and Estella from A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations (historians believe Nelly inspired those characters). As Nelly matures and becomes more confident in her relationship with the famed author, her dresses become more ornate and elegant. A previous winner for The Duchess, O’Connor will not win his second Oscar for this little-seen film.
Many (including yours truly) considered the Kar Wai Wong-helmed The Grandmaster, which chronicles life of legendary martial artist Ip Man (best known for having trained Bruce Lee), a lock for a Best Foreign Language Film nomination, but instead it garnered nods for Best Costume Design and Best Cinematography. For his many designs, including an ornate brothel, William Chang Suk Ping (also the film’s production designer) spent two years collecting lace, ribbons, beads and fabrics for the cheongsam dresses, which were the mid-1900s couture style for upper-class Chinese women. The detail is exquisite, but while the costumes are beautifully recreated, the first-time nominee will be overlooked for the flashier Hollywood designs represented here.
Catherine Martin’s costumes for The Great Gatsby are everything you’d expect from a 1920s-set Baz Luhrman film: bedazzled flapper dresses and smooth, sophisticated suits. Martin, also nominated for Best Production Design, created 1,700 vintage designs for a cast of hundreds. But she had plenty of help, charging Prada to reinterpret classic styles of European and American glamour (Tiffany & Co. assisted with the all of the pearls and shimmering headbands), and enlisting Brooks Brothers, founded in 1818 and referenced by F. Scott Fitzgerald numerous times, for the stylish men’s wear. The costumes are fabulous, to be sure, but the film wasn’t exactly warmly embraced, and folks even seem to be souring a bit on its best parts (i.e. the design).
Thus giving way for the inevitable American Hustle win which, frankly, is deserved. Every day is a hustle in David O. Russell’s film, and the characters consistently dress for success. Con artists and politicos, each is acting a part, and every performance requires dressing the part. Thus, glamor takes center stage, even with Jennifer Lawrence’s ever-aspiring young housewife. Celebrating the full range of textures and styles of the period meant furs, dramatic lines, earth tones, gold chains, velvet suits, plunging necklines (with side boob to spare), pastel polyester pants and body-hugging dresses. The design is a spectacular, head-turning representation of ’70s fashion, and though Michael Wilkinson’s previous work leant to rather forgettable dress for super heroes and sic-fi (Tron: Legacy, Man of Steel, Twilight), voters will award him because it’s a flashy design for a film they actually liked.